Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The great abadhuta (“ascetic”) told the celebrated king Yadu that he had twenty-four gurus (“preceptors”). They were not all humans; among them were natural objects such as the ocean, the sky and the tree, non-human animates such as the bees, the python, and a certain dove, and then the humans – ordinary humans, not great leaders of men or scholars or saints. The episode of the abadhuta occurs in Srimad Bhagavata (and in Jagannatha Das's Bhagabata). It is mainly about the knowledge of life that helps one to rise above the feelings of sorrow, anger, pleasure, etc. that day-to-day life brings. One loses one’s sense of balance in the periods of happiness and of sorrow as well. And both happiness and sorrow are temporary; when one is happy, one does not realize that happiness is short-lived, and when one is sad, one does not realize that sorrow is also temporary.

It is not possible to mention here what all the abadhuta learnt from each of his gurus. So we will touch on what he learnt from just a few of them. From the sea he learnt indifference to gain and loss. During the rains rivers bring more water to the sea, and during summer, water dries up, but the sea neither swells nor shrinks in these seasons. From the tree he learnt what it means to give. The tree gives whatever it has – flowers, fruits, shade, etc. – to whoever wants it, without considering whether he is deserving or not. From wind he learnt a certain kind of detachment. Wind is both inside the body and outside, serving it in many ways including removing smell. It is in and around every body, but is not owned by any particular body. From the python he learnt how to be content with whatever comes one’s way. It consumes whatever it gets, and starves if it gets nothing. From the thief of honey, he learnt how it is a way of the world that someone else takes away the fruit of someone’s hard labour. The bees work hard at extracting honey, but do not consume it themselves. They save it, and then the honey thief comes, smokes the bees, and takes away the honey. In this regard the bee is like the miser who works day and night, denies himself and others the simple pleasures of life in order to save money, and then loses it to a thief. From the dove he learnt about the undesirability of excessive attachment to one’s family, and from the daughter of a certain brahmin, the fact that congregation of many people merely leads to unpleasantness and quarrel. Certain events in the lives of the dove and the girl led the abadhuta to these insights. These events are described in the form of little stories in Srimad Bhagavata. We need not go into the details here.

The abadhuta changes our idea of a guru. None of these twenty-four teachers of him taught him directly, including the human teacher, the girl or the honey thief. None of them knew that he was learning from them. Some of them merely existed, some like the python lived out their lives in accordance with their nature, and some like the dove, the honey thief, and the girl chose to do what they did. The abadhuta did not exist, as far as each of his twenty-four gurus were concerned. Therefore they could hardly be called gurus. But for him, they indeed were his gurus, because he learnt from them.

He reminds us of Eklavya of the Mahabharata who called Dronacharya his guru, who indeed had refused to teach him. Eklavya practiced archery in his name, and acquired the skills. When the occasion arrived, he showed Drona that in archery he exceeded the Kaurava and the Pandava princes who he taught every day. Although self-taught, he had the humility and the sense of gratitude to call Drona his teacher because he had received inspiration from him. Drona of course was completely unaware of this.

Unlike Eklavya, the abadhuta had no way of expressing gratitude to his gurus. He never met his human teachers, to whom alone he could have told what they meant to him. He could do that only when he met someone like the great king Yadu, who was willing to listen. There is another difference between Eklavya and the abadhuta; the former learnt a skill, and the latter, the knowledge of life and of the world, with which he transcended the world. Each got what he sought.

Consider now the kind of shishya (“learner”) the abadhuta was. It would be saying the obvious if we say that he was a great learner. He had the motivation to learn and the intelligence too, but what was far more important was that he had an alert and completely receptive mind that richly responded to things around him, especially the unspectacular, unobtrusive, and mundane things that would ordinarily escape attention. He reflected on what he saw, and derived meanings from them. His life shows that the knowledge one acquires from experience and reflection is much more important than what one does from texts, when it comes to the knowledge of life.

We must note that he did not learn the affirmative values from every single guru of his; in fact, from most of them he learnt what not to do and what not to be. This shows that both the good and the bad are sources of true knowledge. This also shows that a learner must not decide in advance what to ignore; he must open oneself to everything – from the python to Pingala.

Now, coming to the content of the abadhuta’s knowledge, one might ask why he derived those specific meanings from his experiences. Were those the only meanings that could be derived? Surely not; the sky and the sea might mean other things to others. In general, almost any experience is interpretable in more ways than one. Srimad Bhagabata does not raise this issue in this particular context, probably because it would have arrested the flow of the narrative. But one can construct an answer drawing from another great work, namely, the Bhagavat Gita – putting it very briefly, what one seeks and what one becomes are due to the way one is programmed. A detailed answer is beyond the scope of this piece.

In a different world today, hundreds of years after Srimad Bhagavata was composed, one might ask how to relate to the abadhuta’s quest. One answer could be along the following lines: one cannot learn about the guiding values of life from texts alone; for this, one has to reflect on life as it is lived. And one must be “prepared” to learn in the sense of the abadhuta episode and then one would derive illuminating meanings from everything and from every experience.

Finally, if one wishes to dismiss the abadhuta’s values are hopelessly dated and irrelevant in today’s context, consider the way of living he symbolizes, which can be summarized as follows: live your life but remain unattached - let nothing tie you down emotionally Is there really a better way for living one’s life in harmony with the world and with oneself?


(Note: This, and the following piece, namely, “The Gurus of the Abadhuta” are not from Sarala's Mahabharata, but the sixteenth century Oriya poet Jagannatha Das’s Bhagabata (better known in a slightly different spelling: Bhagavata).

The story of Pingala in Jagannatha Das’s Bhagabata, written in Oriya in the sixteenth century, is a little different from the original story in Vyasa’s text, but the difference is at the level of detail. This is not surprising: which story in its retold version is the exact copy of the original, even when the story in question is from a sacred text?

Pingala’s story is about the sudden bursting forth of spiritual illumination. Her story is told to king Yadu by abadhuta (roughly, “ascetic”), who regarded as her one of his gurus (“preceptors”). Pingala was a wealthy prostitute who lived in the city of Bidisha. She was surely attractive and accomplished in her profession, although the great abadhuta does not waste words on this aspect of her. Which sacred text would invite attention to the gross for its own sake? Pingala was greedy. One day she met the son of a very rich man, and invited him to visit her that night. She would receive only him that night, she told him.

When the evening came, she dressed herself most attractively and waited for him. Many came to seek her favours, but she turned everyone away. There was just one man in her mind. Night advanced and darkness thickened, but her man hadn’t still arrived. She was getting increasingly impatient, wondering why he wasn’t coming after making the deal with her. With great expectation she would rush to the doorsteps whenever she saw someone passing by, thinking it was her man, and would then return disappointed. This went on till she couldn’t stay inside any longer. She came to her doorstep and waited for him there.

It was past midnight and the pain of waiting was intense and her longing, unbearable.

And then it happened. Suddenly vairagya (roughly, “disinterestedness in worldly desires and pleasures”) arose in her and pervaded her consciousness. Her greed and her longing vanished as though they were swept off by a broom. She looked back on her life and lamented that she had wasted it in ignorance. She regretted all those years she had given in to the enjoyment of her gross body, and that obsessed with greed for wealth, she had sold herself to many, neglecting the dweller, Narayana himself, within.

Then she was filled with a profound sense of divine delight (ananda). She realized how blessed she was, and what a day that was that brought her liberation. She surrendered herself to Krishna and renouncing desires, decided to live the life of an ascetic, and dedicate every moment of her life to him. And as the dawn arrived, she entered the deep forest.

“Pingala is my guru, listen, O King!”, declared the abadhuta, as he concluded his narrative.

Pingala’s story is powerful and inspiring. In fact, all well-told stories dealing with the unconscious development of conscience are. Her story is short, which is appropriate in the specific context in which it occurs: the abadhuta was telling the king who all his twenty-four gurus (among them were not only humans, but also birds and beasts and even the water and the sky) were and what he learnt from each. Besides, the aim of the narrative is not to tell the Pingala’s story in its completeness, but to explicate, in the narrative mould, a powerful spiritual experience within the framework of a sacred text.

In the classical text Pingala did not retire to a forest. Spiritually awakened, she experienced profound composure, and went to sleep. Both the endings – the one in the classical text, and the other in Das’s – reflect different perspectives, and each is satisfying. From the point of the classical text, when one is spiritually awakened, one becomes indifferent to the physical surroundings; one does not relate to the same any more. These lose their earlier meaning and significance, so there is no need to abandon them - the world has no inherent content to it, and it is how one sees it. In contrast, from Das’s perspective, renunciation involves rejection of the existing living environment. The spiritually awakened person needs a supportive ambience in physical terms so that he (or she) continues to remain in that state. The world is not without content, and can be in conflict with or in harmony with one’s inner state, and the goals of life can be best pursued under conditions of such harmony.

Another way of looking at the ending would be to set aside the tatwic (roughly, “philosophical”) aspect and consider the narrative one. Then one might find Das’s ending more appealing. When Pingala entered the dense forest, she moved away from the familiar to the unfamiliar, to a region almost mysterious. This is quite dramatically and romantically executed in Das.

Probably the basic issue in the Pingala episode concerns the nature of her awakening. It was sudden and profoundly regenerative. What caused it? It was her karma, in Das’s version, and also in the original text. She had done something in some past existence of hers (the knowledge of which was obliterated by rebirth), and this was the result – this was how Pingala understood her experience of liberation. There seems to be no hint at all that it was caused by the grace (kripa) of God, and not by her karma, which might appear somewhat remarkable in view of the fact that Srimad Bhagavata is a work that celebrates the glory of Vishnu (Krishna). It would have been entirely in the spirit of it if grace had been brought into Pingala’s story.

Besides, whether or not some pure version of the theory of karma renders a theory of grace irrelevant and entirely dispensable, the fact remains that in the puranic literature, to which category Srimad Bhagavata belongs, the theory of karma and that of grace have both existed, and grace has been conceptualized as interacting with karma. Ahalya, Draupadi, among many others, provide excellent examples.

However, from the perspective of the time of the happening (as distinct from cosmic time), the perspective actually available to both Pingala (whatever she said about her past existence was nothing more than mere assumption) and the narrator, the event does appear to be an emergent – totally unpredictable in its uniqueness from its antecedents. Clearly, this is no resolution, but is the problem itself, needing explanation. Does grace really provide the explanation? It might only appear to be so, but would indeed amount to a mere restatement of the problem in another language, when one considers the logic of receiving grace. From the purans one comes to the conclusion that it is not predictable; there is no course of action that necessarily leads one to receive grace. In terms of Srimad Bhagavata itself, the demoness Putana received grace; did she do a thing for it? Did she ever want it even?